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A string theory: Nush Lewis’s harp journey

Nush Lewis, one of India’s two known harpists, on the challenges of learning the harp

Nush Lewis at her home in Mumbai. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Nush Lewis at her home in Mumbai. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint (Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint)

The harp is unique. It doesn’t belong to any instrument family, like violins do to strings or trumpets and horns to brass. The elegant appearance of a concert harp hides a complex mechanism, consisting of over 2, 000 moving parts in a wooden frame that supports 47 strings and seven foot-pedals. Its ethereal and otherworldly sound sets the harp apart further.

Nush Lewis, one of only two known harpists performing in India (the other is the Mumbai-based Meagan Pandian), says she was mesmerized when she first saw a harp. Today, eight years later, she sings, composes and performs with the instrument. When not performing in a band, she gives solo performances of original compositions. In June, she co-founded OffSet with her producer Ayan De. A music education venture based out of the Mumbai club antiSocial, OffSet aims to offer workshops, masterclasses and a wide-ranging live performance line-up. Lewis speaks to Lounge about her life, musical journey and challenges of being a harpist in India. Edited excerpts from a phone interview:

Could you describe your musical journey before you came across the harp?

I grew up in a musical family in Kuwait where everyone either liked singing or listening to music. As a child, I was exposed to diverse music—from Simon & Garfunkel, Elvis Presley and The Beatles to old Bollywood songs by Kishore Kumar. Later, when I moved to Christ University in Bengaluru, I joined the university choir and that’s when I formally began to approach music. I realized I loved music enough to consider it as a profession.

How and when did you choose the harp?

After college, I went to the KM Music Conservatory in Chennai as a vocal major, but I happened to watch a harp recital by our American theory teacher, Alison Maggart. That’s when I first saw a harp and was quite taken by this huge instrument which had, what seemed at that time, like a billion strings. So I asked for a trial lesson, which led to another one, and before long, I had changed my major to harp from vocals. It’s an easy instrument to fall in love with.

Were you attracted to the Western repertoire for the harp? And did you consider auditioning for, say, the Symphony Orchestra of India?

I never really grew up listening to Western classical music, but once I studied it and understood the form and repertoire, I really enjoyed it. As much as I would have loved to audition for an orchestra, I gave up playing classical harp after leaving the Conservatory. Today, I function mostly as a singer-songwriter and use the harp for my compositions as you would use a guitar.

What are the challenges of learning harp in India?

No company makes harps in India, so it can only be bought from abroad. As far as I know, it isn’t taught in India purely because no one’s making the instrument. Technology can change this though, as online lessons from around the world are possible, such as the online Virtual Harp Summit arranged by Diana Rowan, a US-based harpist. However, I do hope someone will start making harps in India.

Where’s your harp from? Can technology substitute a real teacher?

I bought mine from the US. The one I currently play is a folk harp with 36 strings, which is smaller than a concert harp. I use many online avenues to learn and develop my technique. I don’t think technology can be a substitute for a teacher, but it’s a good aid for the teacher and the student. Let’s embrace it.

What response have you got from Indian audiences so far?

It’s a very positive one. They are very supportive and with such an enthusiastic response, one feels motivated to write more music. It makes a huge difference. They sometimes ask me questions about the instrument, which I’m very happy to answer.

Could the harp lend itself to Indian classical music?

Oh, yes, absolutely. You can tune it in a different way to play a raga. I’ve played with the Carnatic singer, Chandana Bala for a raga-based Kannada ghazal, which was fascinating. It was a different kind of classical music (to listen to on the) harp, but it was an incredible experience and I loved it.

Fused, released in 2015 and co-produced with Ayan De, was the first music collection by Nush Lewis and is available on Apple iTunes. The second collection will be released in 2018.

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